Over the recent weeks we have been considering what the Bible teaches is the blueprint—processes and mechanisms that are typical of spiritual growth, what the Bible calls sanctification.1 In the last post, we examined mortification—the Spirit-empowered putting to death of indwelling sin lurking in the recesses of the Christian’s heart—as a chief mean for inflaming affections for Christ. However, we cannot forget that any imperatives of the Christian life must flow from who we are Christ; that is, as Christians really and mystically united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of union with Christ, however, has a number of implications. In fact, the New Testament writers, and especially Paul, go to great lengths to spell out at least three implications of union with Christ for the believer.
Sin Has Lost Its Power
First, union with Christ means that just as Christ died we truly are dead to sin and, therefore, are no longer under sin’s reign and dominion.2 Romans 6:11 commands believers to “consider” themselves as “dead to sin.” In short, this command is a command for believers to see themselves as they really are, namely as dead to sin. As Sinclair Ferguson says, through union with Christ a believer’s sin and old life really has “been buried in Christ’s tomb.” Through Christ we are freed from the tyranny of sin’s dominion. As Jesus said in John 8 “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Thomas Boston beautifully illustrates this reality when he says,
When Christ apprehends a soul, the ¨of self is brought down, the man is powerfully taught to deny himself…that union is dissolved, which was between the man and his lusts…[Indeed] His heart is loosed from them, though formerly as dear to him as the members of his body, as his eyes, legs, or arms; and instead of taking pleasure in them as before, he longs to be rid of them.3
Believers Are Raised and Seated With Christ in Heaven
A second implication of our union with Christ is that just as Christ rose again, believers too have been made alive (Romans 6:11; Ephesians 2:5). This is an astonishing truth! Believers in Christ have “been raised with him, ascended in him, now have your true life hidden in him, and are destined to be with him in his glory.”4 As John Owen says, “The Lord Christ… sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification— quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”5 As Paul says in Romans 8, the same “Spirit…who raised Christ Jesus from the dead…dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11). Think of the power!
Faith: Embracing Your New God-Defined Identity
Third, union with Christ calls us to embrace our new God-defined, rather than an old self-defined identity. Sadly, even after hearing these truths for decades, many Christians have a poor understanding of who they actually are in Christ. Experientially, many have “self-defining identities,” in that they see themselves primarily by either the past sins they have committed or according to their own spiritual performance. The problem, of course, with either of these options is that they are both rooted in what the person has done, rather than what Christ has accomplished on his or her behalf.
Union with Christ breaks into this mindset and commands Christians to have a God-defined identity, namely to see themselves not by what they have done, but what Christ has accomplished on their behalf.6 When it comes to obeying Paul’s command to “consider oneself” it is as if there is a fence and one is forced to choose to embrace one side or the other—and there is no middle ground. On one side of the fence is a self-defined identity rooted in what a person has done, on the other of the fence is a God-defined identity rooted in what God has done for them in Christ. And, of course, the command to “consider oneself” is a command not merely to assent intellectually to a proposition, but to embrace experientially a reality. Indeed, there is a major difference between the intellectual assent and experiential embrace.
More than Lip Service—Not Merely a “Sinner Who Happens to Be Saved”
Many Christians pay lip service to the doctrine of union with Christ, but it makes little difference in their daily life. For example, I remember being stunned hearing well-known Reformed pastor opening a ministerial gathering by praying, “Lord, I thank you that we are sinners, who happen to be saved by grace.” As I reflected on these words in the light of Scripture, I remember thinking “actually, nothing could be further from the truth!” To say it another way, it is fundamentally opposed to the very nature of God and the Gospel to believe that—the Father made a covenant with the Son before the foundation of the world to save a people for Himself; that Jesus became a man and achieved the active obedience of his perfect, died a substitutionary death in the place of his elect, rose triumphantly from the dead and as our federal head, ascended into heaven where he makes intercession for his people even now, sent His Spirit into our hearts, and has committed Himself to bring His elect to be with him forever: so that we could identify ourselves as “sinners, who happen to be saved by grace?”
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming that believers do not still struggle—even significantly and lifelong—with indwelling sin. Rather, I am arguing that although believers may struggle with ongoing sin, there is a truer certainty that defines their existence. In short, Christ died and rose so those who believe in him could have a deep and abiding knowledge that they are entirely defined by what Christ has done for them through his death and resurrection. As Sinclair Ferguson says, we must “align our self-understanding to the apostolic norm.” For “when it comes to living out the gospel, clothes make the man-or the woman! If you are a new person in Christ, having died to the old life, been buried in Christ’s tomb, been raised with him, ascended in him, now have your true life hidden in him, and are destined to be with him in his glory- then live as though these things are true of you – because they are true!”7The beauty of this truth is that believers are not attempting to generate a new identity. Rather, they are embracing the reality of who they are in Christ, freely given by faith.
1 This article is an expand and updated version of one section of Greg Salazar, “Growing in Christ-likeness,” in Joel R. Beeke, ed., Growing in Grace (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020).
2 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), p.85.
3 Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), p.285
4 Ferguson, Devoted to God, p.130.
5 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 16 vols., (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 2:199
6 Ferguson, Devoted to God, p.115.
7] Ferguson, Devoted to God, pp.114, 130.